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Songs From Big Tent

Wyclef Jean and De La Soul court new constituencies on albums packed with guest stars. But while De La Soul parties, Wyclef panders.

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Mourning becomes Ecleftic: Wyclef Jean.  

With its self-conscious parade of minorities, the Republican convention tried to be all things to all people. It sampled heavily from the Democrats, but the inspiration for its multicultural showboating could as easily have come from hip-hop, whose stars have mastered the art of appealing to diverse constituencies. Need underground credibility? Pharoahe Monch is available. Props from the swing states of the South? A guest shot from a Cash Money rapper could be just the ticket. And to lock up California, which looms as large in hip-hop as it does in elections, Dr. Dre's beeper is always on.

As a Fugee and on his first solo album, Wyclef Jean has played the field by retooling everything from R&B hits like "Killing Me Softly" to Latin standards like "Guantanamera." But on his new album, The Ecleftic: 2 Sides II a Book (Columbia), he pitches an even bigger tent than he did on The Carnival, with help from an almost ridiculously diverse array of guests, including (straight from the Republican convention!) the Rock, Pharoahe Monch, and Kenny Rogers, who sings a hip-hop-style chorus from "The Gambler."

Like the Republicans in Philadelphia, Jean knows it's important not to be perceived as too ethnic. So The Ecleftic offers superficial nods to country, reggae, R&B, and calypso. He even takes stands on the issues. "Perfect Gentleman" addresses the lack of respect for strippers ("Just cos' she dances go-go it don't make her a ho, no"), and "Something About Mary" showcases Wyclef's drug policy ("I don't sniff cocaine, cos' it mess up my brain/For sexual stimulation I never did no ecstasy"). But like any good campaigner, he's never too specific. "Diallo," which begins with an offensively dopey skit, is framed in clichéd Biblical vagaries.

In interviews, Jean likes to compare his eclecticism to Prince's, but there's a lie at the root of his claim that he's transcended hip-hop by embracing a multitude of genres. True eclectics like De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest seek out samples and inspiration -- in jazz, electronic music, even rock -- while Jean merely traffics in superficial gloss. Near the end of Ecleftic, the skit "Bus Search," in which Jean placates redneck cops by playing rock music, inadvertently reveals his true motive: to get over on his audience.

De La Soul are surrounded by so many guests on Art Official Intelligence: Mosaic Thump (Tommy Boy) that it sometimes seems like an attempt to reach an audience too young to remember virtuoso albums like Three Feet High and Rising and De La Soul Is Dead. But despite collaborators as diverse as Chaka Khan, Busta Rhymes, and Mike D of the Beastie Boys, the album sounds more like the result of a raucous block party than of a careful marketing plan. De La Soul get the most from their guests, too, especially the perpetually unhinged Redman, who gives shout-outs not to moneyed hip-hoppers but to neighborhood types like the "fat chick gettin' your fuck on tonight" on the joyously twangy first single, "Oooh."

Beyond the thumping electro beats provided by producer of the moment Rockwilder, there's also intelligent wordplay Jean can only aspire to. On "Declaration," Posdnuos calls the bluff on "MCs who sell terror," warning, "I came specifically to fracture your ability to grandstand anywhere next to me/This is the year when the true better man keeps the cheddar and the rights to his destiny." Even De La's come-ons are clever: On "With Me," Posdnuos hopes that the phone number from a girl he's just met will "pop up like some bubbles on VH1" on his pager.

Despite a weighty subtitle, and an announcement from De La Soul that it will be the first in a trilogy, Art Official Intelligence is surprisingly, and pleasantly, weightless. Perhaps the group is finally free from the burdens of living up to expectations and countering misperceptions. Like the seemingly light singles from the Sugar Hill Gang or the Funky Four Plus One, Art is hip-hop that turns deliberate slightness into a virtue.


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